Hamilton County Judge David Bales' ethical lapses

Hamilton County Judge David Bales' ethical lapses

December 12th, 2011 in Opinion Times

Hamilton County Judge David Bales

Hamilton County Judge David Bales

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Hamilton County General Sessions Judge David Bales is in rare company these days. Often, that's a desirable circumstance. Not this time, though. Bales has been issued an extremely rare public reprimand by the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary after the court determined that he twice violated judicial ethics. Hamilton County residents deserve better from the judge.

The egregious lapses cited by the Tennessee Court of the Judiciary are uncommon. Only two other judges in Tennessee have been issued reprimands so far in 2011, and only three were cited last year, according to reports. Most judges in Tennessee understand the requirements and challenges of their position, and accept and meet them. Bales demonstrably does not; if he did, the reprimand would not have been issued.

Those who reside here rightfully expect the fair and knowledgeable administration of justice in their courts. In the main, members of the elected judiciary here do so, but there are occasional exceptions. Bales is a case in point.

One case cited in the reprimand involved Bales' improper setting of a bond without the defendant or his attorney present, and his subsequent criticism of a judge who reversed the bond. The Court of the Judiciary found that Bales' action violated a rule requiring that he honor the law and promote "public confidence in the integrity and the impartiality of the Judiciary," according to the report.

That's a major shortcoming. Any action that fails to honor the law and that raises questions about the impartiality and integrity of the judiciary undermines public trust in the judicial system, the foundation of a law-abiding society. More to the point, it raises questions about a judge's suitability for the bench.

In the second incident involving a separate bond issue, Judge Bales publicly criticized the decision of the criminal judge who had reversed his $1 million bond as inappropriately high and had reduced the defendant's bond to $250,000. The defendant was later convicted of murder and sentenced to 23 years in prison. Such criticism of another jurist is a violation of a judicial canon that all judges should know and respect.

Bales' ethical lapses involving what most members of the bar would consider a basic understanding of the law and court operations are hardly surprising given his record. Despite the fact that he had not practiced law full time in more than a decade, he was appointed by the County Commission in a highly partisan vote to complete the term of a judge who had resigned. He then ran for a full term as an incumbent, asking voters to "keep" Judge Bales in office. That stretched the truth.

Technically, he was an incumbent, but in matter of fact he was a short-term appointee whose poor grasp of the law had been exposed while he served as an interim judge. Indeed, a Bar Association poll of 30 city, state and federal trial judges at the time gave Bales a 36 percent unsatisfactory rating -- the highest of the survey. Voters nevertheless endorsed his candidacy.

Bales' grasp of the law obviously has not improved in the years since -- hence the reprimand for ethical lapses. Bales forthrightly admits that he is guilty as charged. He acknowledged his transgressions and said he would "strive to not make mistakes in the future.' Owning up to one's failures is admirable, but it does not resolve the serious issues Bales' conduct raises.

Serving as a judge is not a learn-as-you-go occupation. It requires a knowledge of law and understanding of ethics that Bales has failed to demonstrate with the same constancy as his peers. The reprimand handed him by the court that effectively judges Tennessee's judges strongly suggests that he remains a liability and a weak link in the local judiciary more than halfway through his term of office. Voters should remember that if and when Bales seeks re-election.